With Clippers' Kawhi Leonard out, injuries continue to play a huge role in postseason

·7 min read

Injuries continue to hamper the NBA playoffs.

If it wasn't enough already with Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis, Denver's Jamal Murray, Utah's Mike Conley, Boston's Jaylen Brown, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard will miss Game 5 with a sprained right knee and there is no timetable for his return.

And while not injury-related, Chris Paul's status for the Western Conference finals is unknown as he enters the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

As they have all season and now into the playoffs, injuries — and absence of injuries — continue to play a significant role in who wins, who advances and who doesn’t.

Leonard will be the eighth All-Star to miss a playoff game this year, which is the most in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Paul could be the ninth.

LeBron James on Twitter Wednesday criticized the NBA's compact schedule for the injuries, NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass said in a statement, "Injury rates were virtually the same this season as they were during the 2019-20 season while starter-level and All-Star players missed games due to injury at similar rates as the last three seasons. While injuries are an unfortunate reality of our game, we recognize the enormous sacrifices NBA players and teams have made to play through this pandemic.”

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Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. was listed on the injury report for Game 2 against Phoenix as "available" with lower back tightness.

Porter played, but it was clear he wasn’t 100% as he finished with 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting as the Suns won 123-98 and took a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinals series on their to a 4-0 sweep.

That wasn’t Denver’s only health issue. Will Barton returned from a hamstring strain and played for the first time since April 23, and P.J. Dozier missed another game with a strained right abductor. Of course, Jamal Murray was out with a torn left ACL.

It’s just not the Nuggets.

The Los Angeles Lakers were shorthanded with a hobbled Davis, who played just 19 minutes in Game 5 and five minutes in Game 6 with a strained groin against Phoenix in the first round. LeBron James also wasn’t 100% with an ankle injury. That doesn’t mean the Lakers would have won the series had they been healthy. But clearly, their chances would have been better.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged, "If we have the core of Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy, we’ll build the right supporting cast around those guys and we’ll have a chance to compete for a championship again next year."

Michael Porter Jr. played in Game 2 but was limited with lower back tightness.
Michael Porter Jr. played in Game 2 but was limited with lower back tightness.

The Boston Celtics lost Jaylen Brown to a wrist injury late in the regular season and were without Kemba Walker during the final three games against Brooklyn in the first round.

Atlanta just lost De’Andre Hunter for the remainder of the playoffs due to a small tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee. Hunter, who had surgery on Tuesday, was a key part of the Hawks’ rotation.

Hunter played in just 23 regular-season games, but he averaged 15 points and 4.8 rebounds and made a difference defensively, especially in the first-round series where the Knicks scored just 100.3 points per 100 possessions with Hunter on the court. For comparison, the Hawks allow 107.2 points per 100 possessions in the postseason.

"It’s very tough for him," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. "He really fought hard to come back and help us and he did in our last series. He certainly was an impact player for us on both ends of the floor. All of sudden you go out again with an injury, it’s very frustrating for him.

"But it’s something that needs to be done. He needs to take care of that as soon as possible, and we have to make that adjustment once again. He’s a big part of what we have been doing all season long but certainly in this playoffs. It’s a big loss for us."

Speaking of "small" tears of the lateral meniscus, that’s the same injury Philadelphia All-Star Joel Embiid sustained in the first round against Washington. He is pushing through with physical therapy and treatment, and the Sixers will go as far as Embiid’s knee and health can take them.

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Brooklyn has the talent to overcome injuries, which is a benefit most teams don’t have. Even without James Harden for the first four games of their second-round series against Milwaukee, Jeff Green for the first three games then Kyrie Irving for Game 5, the Nets are up 3-2 against the Bucks. Irving will also miss Game 6.

It helps to have one of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant. Don’t forget Spencer Dinwiddie hasn’t played since partially tearing the ACL in his right knee on Dec. 27. His presence would make the Nets even more dangerous.

Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers grabs his thigh after falling during the first half of Game Four of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on May 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers grabs his thigh after falling during the first half of Game Four of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on May 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Green returned in Game 4, and Harden was a surprise return in Game 5.

The Bucks are in a hole, and it doesn’t help that Donte DiVincenzo, who started in each of the 66 games he played in the regular season, is out after needing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle, an injury he sustained in Game 3 against Miami in the first round.

"It's a tough blow, but you have to kind of process and understand it's an unfortunate thing, but we have to prepare and get ready," Budenholzer said. "Other guys will have opportunities."

Still, it’s difficult to replace the 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists DiVincenzo had in a career-best season, and it showed in Milwaukee’s Game 3 victory. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton combined for 68 of the Bucks’ 86 points and just four other Bucks scored, and not one in double figures.

Late-season injury data maintained by the NBA indicated injuries are not worse in this compact season compared to other seasons, including injuries to star players.

It’s not like this season is only season in which injuries impacted the outcome. Last season was its own kind of mentally and physically exhausting attrition in the bubble, and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were sidelined against Toronto in the 2019 NBA Finals. Injuries to Kevin Love and Irving in the 2015 Finals decimated Cleveland.

The Suns have maintained health, especially with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton and Paul before the health and safety protocol issue, so it’s no surprise they were able to sweep the Nuggets and advance to their first Western Conference finals appearance since 2010. They have one player — seldom-used Abdel Nader — on their injury report.

Utah has managed a 2-2 series tie against the Los Angeles Clippers without Conley due to a mild right hamstring strain, but his presence will be needed (or missed) if the Jazz advance.

"Hopefully, we'll get him back as quickly as possible," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "But those things are hard to predict."

The deeper the Nets go, the more they may need Harden at near full strength. He averaged 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the first round against Boston.

As for the Sixers, they’ll keep riding Embiid who scored 39 points in Game 1 and a dominant playoff career-high 40 in Game 2 against the Hawks, although he labored through the Sixers' Game 4 loss that tied the series at 2-2

"It may be bothering me, but I’m just not thinking about it," Embiid said. "I just want to focus on giving my all, just playing hard every single possession."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With Kawhi Leonard now out, injuries playing big role in NBA postseason

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